My Old Delhi of Utmost Happiness: Rediscovering with Arundhati Roy
In ‘The Ministry of Utmost Happiness’, places aren’t simply locations – they’re characters with personalities.
I grew up hearing stories of Old Delhi from my father whose family still lives in Gali Shatara at Ajmeri Gate in the walled city. Many years ago, my grandfather would go visit, and return with bags of kachoris and aloo ki sabzi every time. During my years at Delhi University, I’d land up at the Chawri Bazaar Metro station nearly four times a week just to walk around and drink some lassi.
Under the shadow of the Jama Masjid, I’d visit friends, buy stationery and spectacles, show people around (and show off how well I knew the streets) as I haggled with rickshaw pullers and made plans to eat chaat before taking the Metro back home.
But once college ended, my frequent visits to purani Dilli came to a screeching halt. It’s only when I read Arundhati Roy’s book, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, that all those memories came rushing back and the sights, sounds and smells of the walled city engulfed me again. Setting aside what I thought of Roy’s book (you can read the review here), she’s made sure that places aren’t simply backdrops for the story to play out – they are characters with distinct personalities.
Finding Roy’s Dilli-6
Roy makes references to various places in Old Delhi but doesn’t outrightly name all of them. While she names Gali Dakotan and Turkman Gate, she keeps the location of the graveyard, where a central character named Anjum resides, a secret. We set out to find that graveyard based on small clues: a small Muslim graveyard, next to a government hospital near the old city. It led us to Mehndiyan, a qabristan located behind GB Pant hospital near Dilli Gate.
It was only later, after identifying the graveyard (with the help of my father and a friend who lives opposite Jama Masjid), that I stumbled across the true story of Mona Ahmed – a eunuch who lived in the same graveyard and was born in 1937.
Roy told the story of Chitli Qabar as she narrated the life of a young boy named Aftab. Chitli Qabar, she says, is the grave of a spotted goat with supernatural powers. The Internet tells me the name comes from the word ‘chittai’, meaning text and pattern engravings on utensils and qabar because it’s the final resting place of 40 wise old men who were shot dead at the end of that road. The locals, however, tell me Chitli Qabar is the grave of an artisan who worked with flowers and was buried where he had set up shop.
Dilli-6 is full of these stories, where nobody agrees but everyone nods along because the tales themselves are so old that it’s hard to say when or where they originated.
We nodded along as the residents argued about which story of Chitli Qabar was true and then went off to get some lassi. (The kachoris had to be abandoned because one of our team was keeping roza for the month of Ramzan and we didn’t want to eat without him.)
Pardesi in My Own City
As my colleagues and I walked through the streets of the walled city looking for the various streets Roy spoke of in her book and identifying places where we could shoot, the magic of the area set in. We stopped functioning in the timezone of the Delhi we lived and worked in and became part of a slower yet far more chaotic environment.
As we shot near Chitli Qabar, the lane shut down to watch the “film shooting” that was taking place. The reactions to the camera weren’t what you’d expect from people who lived not just in a metropolitan city but a part of it that had, for decades, been a prime tourist area.
Little kids wanted their photos taken, old men wanted to know where the “film” would be shown, and some women who walked by wanted to make sure we were showcasing the best parts of Old Delhi.
As we approached Jama Masjid, it became evident that people here were more used to the cameras. The shopkeepers greeted us in English, assuming we were tourists. One old man even warned me to hang my backpack in front of me because “aap toh pardesi hain. Aapko pata bhi nahin chalega ki koi utha ke le gaya. (You’re a foreigner. You won’t even realise if someone takes your bag.)”
Even someone who was born and grew up in modern India’s capital city was a foreigner in the eyes of a purani dilliwasi.
Anchor and Producer: Taruni Kumar
Cameraperson: Athar Rather
Multimedia Producer: Kunal Mehra
Production Assistant: Naman Shah
Executive Producer: Ritu Kapur
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